Saturday, September 24, 2011

Meghan O’Rourke on the Death of Her Mother and Her Year of Mourning

On Christmas Day 2008, the poet and critic Meghan O’Rourke’s mother Barbara died of cancer at the age of 55, throwing O’Rourke into a tailspin of grief. Using her journalist’s eye, O’Rourke started exploring her own mourning for the web magazine Slate. The result was a searing, individual picture of the writer’s grief and how her family coped with their loss.

In her book “The Long Goodbye”(Riverhead, $26, 320 pp.), O’Rourke takes an unflinching yet poetic look at her mother’s fatal battle against cancer and her own overpowering grief. O’Rourke writes with brutal honesty about the unbearable pain of losing her mother and her attempts to process it during that first year. Along the way, O’Rourke creates a vivid portrait of her mother as a beloved parent and teacher. O’Rourke also realizes that as the eldest child, she must take some responsibility for her father and younger brothers.

O’Rourke, 35, is the author of the award-winning poetry collection “Halflife" and is a columnist for Slate. She spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by telephone from Marfa, Texas.

Q. Your writings on grief started in your Slate column seven weeks after your mother’s death. How did you make this decision to address your grief?

A. There are two answers. First, after my mother died, it was very difficult or me to focus on anything deeply. I was immersed in remembering her. The second answer is pragmatic. I was very far behind on my column because I had been taking care of my mother. I told my editor I was thinking about grief, and she said, “Why don’t you write about it?” It was not something I would have done if I didn’t have encouragement.

Q. At times, you write harshly about yourself in the first months after your mother’s death, saying “Grief is not ennobling me,” listing your selfish and needy qualities. Why?

A. I had never planned to write a memoir, but as I got deeper into it, I felt my obligation was to render the experience in as three-dimensional a manner as possible. I had to bring the same scrutiny to myself, to examine myself almost as a character in a novel. The act of writing became part of the act of mourning.

Q. You were with your mother at every stage in her two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer, including giving her hospice care at the end. Why did your grief blindside you?

A. As I said in my book, the act of someone dying is very different from them being dead. There was no way to prepare for my mother’s death. I’d say to myself, “I will only see her face four more times, three more times.” Then one day, I couldn’t see her face anymore.

Q. In the months after she died, you refer to your relationship with your mother as a romance. What did you mean?

A. It was a romance. My mother was gone and all I could think of was my love for her. When you are romantically pining for someone, you are living with them in your head. I was thinking about her smile, her little moments of kindness.

Q. You note the lack of death rituals in modern American life and how your family made its own. How did you memorialize your mother?

A. What I missed from the rituals was the recognition of loss, not only my family’s loss, but that of the community. The moments that were meaningful were the rituals we made up, where we scattered her ashes as a family.

Though the book ends, my mourning hasn’t ended. I learned that there are no shortcuts to grief, that you have to go through it and feel it. Ending the book, I didn’t want to come to any tidy conclusions. Through my grief, though, there were some ways that I learned a lot and grew.

(This interview ran in the Newark Star-Ledger in April 2011)

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